In The Meaning of Everything, Simon Winchester takes the reader abroad, into the story of the language, the technology, and the myriad of personalities that makes the Oxford English Dictionary possible. This is no small feat. Winchester's power as a storyteller is firmly on display as he carries the reader through complex tasks, negotiating rules of inclusion, and defining the English language. Time and context are woven into the narrative as Winchester demonstrates how these challenges are made more complicated by the publication of Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, by the efforts of previous dictionaries that grew out the fifteenth-century printing revolution, and by writers who champion purging English of all acquisitions not identifiable as part of the most pure “Teutonic” Old English.

In addition to the narrative, it is obvious that the author has great affection for the personalities. He takes time to point out...

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